I was in middle school the first time I opened a book set in Latin America. My mom asked me to read “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” by Julia Alvarez and I loved reading a book that felt familiar. Set in both New York City and the Dominican Republic, I felt like I was reading something any member of my family could have written. Since then, I’ve always sought out books set in my parent’s Cuba and the Dominican Republic but recently, I’ve branched out and started reading books set in other countries. With so many similarities between Latin American countries, each book feels familiar but I’m also learning so much about the other countries that make up the diaspora.
Inspired by that, I sought out to compile this list of books to inspire pride from every country in Latin America. It was a surprisingly difficult task. While some countries have too many books to choose from, others – predominantly those in South and Central America – were difficult to find. In the 1960s and 70s, there was a boom of translated fiction that hit the US market out of Latin America but it seems not to have kept up to the present day.
Latinos make up only 6% of the literary publishing world and several Latino authors have shared stories of rejection after rejection, with books being deemed “unmarketable” or “unrelatable.” Many were told to include immigration and border crossing stories to make the books more “interesting.” It was easy to find books set in each of these countries, it was much more difficult to find books published by authors from those countries and I wanted this list to be a celebration of authors writing about the countries they know.
Despite all of that, here is a list of books set in almost every country in Latin America. Bolivia, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Paraguay have sadly been left out as my search for literature written by authors from these countries or set in them left me disappointed. For the rest of them, I hope that these books offer the same sense of familiarity I’ve found in reading books set in the countries I call home. And if anything, I hope this opens your eyes to the need for more diverse books and more diversity in publishing.
“Furia” by Yamile Saied Méndez: Written by a self-proclaimed fútbol obsessed Argentine-American, “Furia” is the story of a young Argentinian girl who dreams of playing fútbol despite societal and cultural expectations that this is a man’s sport. A young adult novel, this book transports you to Argentina. With details of daily life, it doesn’t shy away from broaching cultural and social issues including domestic violence, misogyny, and colorism but the book also exhibits a deep pride and love of country.
“It Is Wood, It Is Stone” by Gabriella Burnham – Published in 2020 and named one of the best books of the year by multiple outlets, this lyrically written novel set in Sáo Paulo brings together an American professor’s wife, Linda and her maid, Marta. As Linda becomes increasingly restless with her husband’s long hours and feels out of place in a home that doesn’t feel hers, she takes off and finds herself on an unexpected journey through Brazil with a woman she meets in a dive bar, learning about herself and Marta in the process. Written by a Brazilian American woman, this book reads like a coming-of-age story for someone who has already come of age but is still trying to find her place in the world.
“The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende: Isabel Allende is one of the most prolific Latina authors in contemporary fiction. Her first novel, “The House of Spirits” is a clear indication of the success that would follow. Told over a span of 90 years, this book follows four generations of women in Chile from the First World War through Pinochet’s coup which overthrew President Allende (Isabel’s uncle). Told largely by the family’s patriarch, a Senator in Chile’s Socialist government, the story unfolds for the four women – each with a fierce determination for independence – as Chile and the world around them change and ultimately crash. In this novel, Chile is as much a character as Senator Trueba and his family, and 30 years later, the novel is still captivating and worth reading more than once.
“Fruit of the Drunken Tree” by Ingrid Rojas Contreras: Set in Colombia in the 1990s and inspired by the author’s own upbringing, “Fruit of the Drunken Tree” follows 7-year-old Chula and the unlikely relationship she forms with her teenage maid as Pablo Escobar maintains his hold over Bogotá. Chula and her sister live in a gated community, safe from the threat of kidnapping and violence just outside the gates. Their mother hires a live-in maid, Petrona, from a nearby slum who is burdened by trying to provide for her family. Chula is determined to learn Petrona’s secrets as their families struggle to maintain some semblance of stability amidst the conflict, and the web of secrets threatens to shake both girls. A riveting novel from a debut author, this is a book that will leave you thinking long after turning the final page.
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“The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times” by Anthony DePalma – I hesitate to include a book written by a non-Cuban in this compilation, however, this brilliant work of non-fiction written by a journalist provides exceptional insight into Cuba today. The book follows five families in Guanabacoa and tells their stories from the height of Castro’s rise to power through the present day. From a government minister to a celebrated artist, and a man who loses 14 family members trying to leave the island, this book includes a diverse range of perspectives and demonstrates the remarkable resilience by which today’s Cubans are forced to exhibit.
The Dominican Republic
“In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez – Inspired by the true story of the Mirabal sisters who rebelled against the Trujillo dictatorship and were killed for doing so, this historical fiction account imagines the sisters as young girls growing up under Trujillo’s shadow, their early introduction to the revolution, and their full participation. A beautiful novel that seamlessly blends fact with fiction, this is an inspiring book that gives each sister her own voice when history often treats them as a collective.
“The Queen of Water” by Laura Resau and María Virginia Farinango – Based on a true story, this follows an indigenous girl growing up in an Andean village who is taken from her family to be a domestic servant. A story that explores both race and class divisions, “The Queen of Water” is about grit and overcoming not only hardship but societal expectation and carving one’s own path.
“Corazon” by Yesika Salgado – The only book of poetry to make this list written by the Salvadoran American two time National Poetry Slam finalist and recipient of the 2020 International Latino Book Award in Poetry, “Corazon” as a compilation is a love story. Each poem examines love, loving oneself, one’s family, one’s country, hungering for love, and being hurt by it. The poem, “A Salvadoran Heart” is a beautiful ode to the author’s home country and one that sings of identity, of culture, and of home.
“The Other Half of Happy” by Rebecca Balcárcel – A middle grade novel about a Guatemalan-American girl forced to find her place in the hyphen. When relatives from Guatemala move in, Quijana starts feeling pressure to connect more with her Guatemalan heritage. Lyrically written, “The Other Half of Happy” will resonate with anyone from the diaspora who has struggled to find their place between two cultures.
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“Caramelo” by Sandra Cisneros – A lesser known novel from the famed author of “The House on Mango Street,” this novel is about a Mexican family making their annual summer journey from Chicago to Mexico City to visit their “Awful Grandmother.” Along the way, Ceyala starts telling the story of her grandmother and how she got to be so awful. Told from Ceyala’s perspective at different points in her life, and sprinkled with interruptions, this is a lively story that is rich in Mexican culture and identity.
“Meet Me Under the Ceiba” by Silvio Sirias – A winner of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize, this murder mystery follows a Nicaraguan American professor who sets out to uncover the murder of a young woman, Adela, in his parents’ hometown. Based on a true story, the book reads like a journal as the professor shares details of his interviews with those close to Adela and his thoughts as he tries to solve the mystery. Set in the small town of La Curva, Nicaragua, this mystery presents the class divides in Nicaragua in a provoking mystery that is difficult to put down.
“The World in Half” by Cristina Henríquez – Reading like a love letter to Panama, “The World in Half” follows Miraflores on a journey to find the father she has never known or cared to know in the hopes he might somehow help heal her mother with Alzheimer’s. Mira’s journey to discover her own parent’s history leads her on her own path of self discovery in a way that is informative and educational, while also telling a beautiful story about family, identity, and discovery.
“American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood” by Marie Arana – Written by the Literary Director of the Library of Congress, this memoir details Arana’s upbringing in Peru. Raised by a Peruvian father who taught her to be prim and proper, and an American mother who taught her to ride horses and kill chickens, Arana’s upbringing seems normal until she moves to the US. Set in both Peru and Wyoming, this is a brilliant memoir that explores the author’s childhood and how it shaped her upbringing.
“La Borinqueña” by Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez – A Latina superhero? Sign me up. Taking us from Brooklyn to Borikén, rather than the reverse, this graphic novel features a Boriqua superhero who, while exploring caves on a study abroad trip to her native Puerto Rico, meets Atabex, the Taino mother goddess and her sons who bestow her with superpowers. Armed with these powers, she uses them as a force for good to combat the economic and environmental challenges facing Puerto Rico. Named for Cuba’s national anthem, “La Borinqueña” is a brilliant comic that inspires Puerto Rican pride and reads true to the island’s indigenous roots. Author, Edgardo Mirando-Rodriguez has a special talent for that, also seen in his children’s book Kiki Koki.
“Cantoras” by Carolina De Robertis – A feminist tour de force about five women who come together under the oppressive military regime of Uruguay during the 70s, “Cantoras” is a brilliant novel that spans 35 years as the women individually come together and make a sanctuary on the uninhabited Cabo Polonio and live between there and Montevideo. An emotional journey, this book is as uplifting as it is devastating, as funny as it is sad, as these five women who cannot live their authentic selves and love their own sex, come together as friends, and as lovers, creating their own sense of family.
“Doña Barbara” by Rómulo Gallegos – First published in 1929 and considered a classic both in Venezuela and throughout Latin America, this book written by the first democratically elected president of Venezuela is a classic that holds up nearly a century after it was written. A precursor to the magical realism that would become a staple of later Latin American literature, the book tells of a lawyer who returns to his home of Apure to sell his family’s land, only to find it overtaken by his cousin, Doña Barbara, a rumoured witch ruling the land with an iron fist. What ensues is a wild story that examines modernization – both the quest for and the threat of, in a family tale of intrigue, magic, and vengeance.